Sunday, November 24, 2013

101. Our Mayors: The Best and the Worst

A. Oakey Hall

A. OAKEY HALL, MAYOR OF NEW YORK.   Probably the most versatile of New York mayors, and certainly the most elegant, was the 79th  (1869-72), Abraham Oakey Hall, known to his contemporaries as the Elegant Oakey.  Lawyer, journalist, politician, playwright, poet, and lecturer, he was a slim but active man, slight of build, with wavy black hair and a black beard and mustache, who sported a pince-nez with a black ribbon that dropped through an ample necktie into the depths of a snow-white shirt. 

     He came by his nickname rightly, for he dressed in the height of fashion and rarely wore the same outfit twice.  His wardrobe included velvet-collared coats made to order by the city’s most fashionable tailors; shirts of the finest linen; fancy vests, some of them embroidered by his wife; jewelry of his own design from Tiffany’s; and elaborate cuff links also designed by himself. 

     For special occasions he took care to dress appropriately.  At the annual Americus Club ball in 1869 he wore a bottle-green coat with half sovereigns of pure gold for buttons and a green velvet collar and lapels; an ample satin necktie; a shirtfront embroidered with shamrocks in green floss silk; outsized emeralds glinting in his buttonholes; and eyeglasses with a green silk cord.  Certainly he must have outshone all other attendees, but why, one might ask, all the green?  Because the club was Boss Tweed’s creature, and its members his Tammany cronies, many of whom were Irish immigrants; himself a WASP of the old order, the Elegant Oakey was well aware of this.  Needless to say, green dominated his St. Patrick’s Day apparel as well.

     A Whig turned Republican, he is said to have left that party in turn to become a Democrat, because he found Abraham Lincoln, the party’s 1860 presidential candidate, too backwoodsy, too uncouth.  Yet he himself, though WASP to the core, was no child of privilege; his widowed mother had had to run a boardinghouse to make ends meet, and her brilliant son had worked hard to get ahead.  Now, with Boss Tweed’s help, he became district attorney and prosecuted hundreds of cases successfully.  Yet he felt no deep need for change, was not inclined to make waves, and so was seen by Tweed as just the mayor he needed.  He was elected in 1869.

     The new mayor lived well, dined well.  A lavish spender, he was seen daily at Delmonico’s, and received dozens of dinner invitations from the gentry, in whose brownstones he was always welcome as a genial guest who enlivened the conversation with his quips and puns.  He was, in fact, useful to Tweed as a bridge to the brownstones, in whose tasteful parlors Tweed and his Tammany cohorts were never allowed to set foot.

     If less than diligent in overseeing the city’s accounts, Mayor Hall was a whiz at the mayor’s ornamental duties, entertaining distinguished foreign visitors, presenting toasts at public banquets, and performing marriages.  And no mayor had ever laid cornerstones of public buildings as deftly as he, brandishing one of a set of silver trowels he had accumulated for precisely this purpose.

     Many of the Tammany braves looked askance at the mayor, baffled or annoyed by his high society connections, his glittering wardrobe, his writing of – of all things! – plays.  But Tweed, aware of the Elegant One’s perceived lightness of being, reassured them:  “Oakey’s all right.  All he needs is ballast.”  By “all right” perhaps he meant slack, compliant, signing vouchers without asking questions..

     Suddenly, in July 1871, Mayor Hall’s snug tenure received a shock, when a disgruntled Tammany man leaked a series of accounts transcribed from the books of the city comptroller, showing huge payouts to contractors for work on the still unfinished county courthouse.  (Yes, in those days too there were whistleblowers.)  Published with fanfare in the New York Times, these accounts – thermometers $7,000, brooms $41,000, plastering close to three million, carpentry well over four – shocked and infuriated the public, provoking a mass movement of reformers to overthrow Tweed and his Ring, which presumably included Mayor Hall.  Tammany was in deep trouble, and the mayor as well.

     Spearheading the attack on the alleged Ring (“true as steal”) were the cartoons of Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, which even the most illiterate of voters could grasp.  Nast turned Tweed into a bloated plundering monster, and Hall into a prancing little popinjay with drooping beribboned pince-nez, a figure as ridiculously lightweight as his Tweed was ponderous and menacing.  But lightweight or not, A. Okay Haul, as Nast labeled the mayor, was lumped with Tweed, his cronies, and the contractors in a vast conspiracy to defraud the public.  His defenders insisted that the mayor was honest, that his only fault was not inspecting the accounts more closely, but the reformers were not convinced.

A Nast cartoon: Who stole the people's money?  'Twas him.
Hall is on the right, with the outsized pince-nez.

     As the reform movement gathered momentum, many suspects developed a sudden yearning for the cultural delights of Paris (which had just undergone a lengthy siege by the Germans and, following that, a bloody insurrection) and decamped forthwith, but the mayor, protesting his innocence, stood his ground.  No less than three trials resulted, and the Elegant One, an experienced attorney, defended himself with skill, witty and charming one moment, caustic or tearful the next, but always the soul of innocence.  If he had signed some 39,257 vouchers as mayor, he had had neither time nor inclination to read them, having “an ineradicable aversion to details.”  The first trial ended with the death of a juror, the second with a hung jury, and the third with an acquittal.  Following this, the now ex-mayor wrote a play, The Crucible, about a man accused of stealing that was produced with himself in the lead.  As always, he was amazingly versatile.

     The play, alas, was a flop.  After that he seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown and moved to London, where he resided for several years.  He returned to public life as a journalist and lawyer, and in 1894 defended the anarchist Emma Goldman against charges of inciting to riot; though sentenced to a year in prison, she hailed him as a champion of free speech.  He died in 1898.

     Years after the Tweed scandals erupted, when the rage for reform had subsided, some of the reformers revised their opinion of Hall, whom they now believed to be innocent of knowingly defrauding the public.  Today historians tend to agree.  He was a skillful lawyer, a delightful punster, a dazzling dandy, and a deft wielder of silver trowels at the laying of cornerstones, but not a criminal.  Lightweight though he was, had it not been for his fatal connection with Tweed, he might have hoped to be governor.

Fernando Wood and Jimmy Walker

File:Fernando Wood - Brady-Handy.jpg
Striking a Napoleonic pose.
Or just scratching.
     Previous posts have discussed this duo, who compete with other candidates for the distinction of most corrupt mayor.  (See vignettes #9 and #14, and posts #85 and #100.)  We have seen how “Fernandy,” the 73rd and 75th mayor of New York (he was elected to two nonconsecutive terms, 1855-58 and 1860-62), a veteran tippler, maneuvered skillfully in the 1850s to avoid implementing the prohibitory Maine Law in all but name.  During his second term, faced with the South’s secession and the city merchants’ opposition to war, he made the novel proposal that New York likewise secede from the Union and, as an independent state, continue its profitable trade with the South.  His proposal went nowhere and, despite its misgivings, the city contributed mightily to the government’s war effort.  After this second term he probably reached a secret understanding with Boss Tweed, a rising power, whereby he abandoned municipal politics to Tammany and with the Boss’s blessing ran instead for the House of Representatives, where he served several terms until his death in 1881.  A survivor, then, in politics, and as slick a customer as ever graced the mayor's office, but was he corrupt?  Though he was never convicted of anything, the consensus then and now says yes.  As the first professional politician to hold that office, and above all as a Tammany mayor, everything points to his guilt.

File:James Walker NYWTS.jpg     Slim, dapper, and charming, Jimmy Walker, our 97th mayor (1926-32), was adept at surfaces, thus following in the nimble footsteps of the Elegant Oakey.  Notice that smile in the photograph; admittedly with the benefit of hindsight, I find in it a hint of the supercilious and sly.  Would you trust your money or the city’s to such a smile?  Certainly not.  But New Yorkers of the Jazz Age didn’t care; they were having too much fun.  So Gentleman Jimmy kept on doing what he did best: leading parades down Fifth Avenue sporting a silk topper and a smile, and a cutaway coat, striped trousers, and a walking stick; reveling at night in speakeasies with his chorus girl girlfriend, and rarely showing up at City Hall before noon; tossing off wisecracks and smiling.  For New Yorkers, having a fun-loving mayor was fun … for a while.  But when rumors of corruption led to Judge Samuel Seabury’s extensive investigation of his administration, under pressure Gentleman Jimmy resigned and promptly decamped for Europe and an extended vacation, returning only when the investigation had uncovered no hard evidence against him.  Greeting him at the dock were a multitude of well-wishers, a serenade of ferry whistles and horns, and an eager throng of reporters.  Beau James was, after all, charming.  Had he taken bribes (“beneficences,” he called them)?  Almost certainly.  But he never went to prison.

John Lindsay

     John Lindsay, our 103rd mayor (1966-73), was probably the handsomest mayor, but it did him little good in office; he came in riding high, experienced one crisis after another, and left office wounded and depressed.  It was his misfortune to preside over a city in deep crisis that allowed for no quick fix.

File:John Lindsay NYWTS 1.jpg
Carrying his budget.  And a heavy load it was.
     A liberal Republican, for seven years he had represented Manhattan’s 17th District, the East Side’s so-called Silk Stocking District, in Congress.  In 1965 he ran for mayor, an office no Republican had held since Fiorello La Guardia’s time.  Winning support from key Republicans, he presented himself as a candidate that Democrats and Liberals could vote for (I know; I voted for him); campaigning ably, he won in a tight race.  The new mayor aroused great hopes and had an aura of glamor about him, but on January 1, 1966, his first day of office, the Transport Workers Union went on strike, shutting down all the subway and bus lines that the city depended on.

      Lindsay’s three-term predecessor, Robert Wagner, had known that Mike Quill,  head of the TWU, liked to threaten a strike and bluster, but would settle at the last minute on terms that both he and the city could call a victory.  But Lindsay knew little of such tactics and made the mistake of lecturing Quill on civic responsibility instead.  Quill, a gutsy Irish immigrant, resented this.  In fact, he resented everything about the incoming mayor: his boyish prep school looks (he was only 43), his naïve idealism, his aura of Mr. Clean.  “Coward!  Pipsqueak!  Ass!” he bellowed in a brogue at the mayor, whom he referred to contemptuously as “Lindsley.”  He was determined to teach this well-scrubbed kid, this WASP in shining armor, a lesson, even at the cost of time in jail, his strike being technically illegal. 

     Quill indeed went to jail, and the strike lasted an unprecedented thirteen days and cost the city $1.5 billion in lost productivity and wages.  “I still think it’s a fun city,” said Lindsay, who walked four miles from his hotel to city hall daily, but the “fun city” remark would be repeatedly thrown in his face by critics.  Meanwhile officials advised citizens to rediscover “the lower appendages,” and I did, walking up from the Village to Midtown to get a ticket to the previously sold-out play Marat/Sade, now available because of cancellations; then, to see it, I walked up again.  (Full title: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.  See why it’s referred to as Marat/Sade?)  As for commuting to my teaching job in distant Queens, with the subway system out I enjoyed a surprise vacation, but not everyone was happy.  A settlement was finally reached, giving the TWU a huge pay raise that committed the city to burdensome labor costs for years.  It was a great victory for Quill, but three days after the settlement he died of a sudden heart attack.

     More crises followed.  An attempt to decentralize the school system, where black students had mostly white (and usually Jewish) teachers and administrators, led to a strike by the United Federation of Teachers that closed 85% of the schools for 55 days, putting a million children out of classrooms and disrupting their families.  It was a nasty affair, with charges of racism and anti-Semitism flying thick and fast.  Tensions between blacks and Jews persisted for years, thus splitting the liberal base that the mayor depended on.  Meanwhile the sanitation workers went on strike, leaving the sidewalks heaped with stinking garbage that winds hurled hither and yon, and the police staged a slowdown, and firefighters threatened job actions.  One bright spot: when the assassination of Martin Luther King provoked riots in black ghettos across the nation, Lindsay walked the streets of Harlem to reassure residents that he mourned King and was working against poverty; no riot occurred.  But the chaotic last six months of 1968 were, in Lindsay’s own words, “the worst of my public life.”

     Not that 1969 was much better.  In February a blizzard buried the city in 15 inches of snow, leaving side streets in Queens unplowed for days.  When the mayor came to inspect, he was greeted by homeowners with boos and jeers and oaths.  “You should be ashamed of yourself!” screamed one woman. “Get away, you bum,” said another.  Never had an honest mayor with the best intentions been received with such antipathy.  The whole affair reinforced a growing impression that the mayor, biased in favor of minorities, was indifferent to the problems of the white middle class in the outer boroughs.

     The accusation that Lindsay favored minorities over whites smacked of racism, yet it was not without substance.  I recall hearing reports of a riot by angry welfare mothers in a welfare office.  Sensing that they could get away with it, they began trashing the office.  The police, though present, had strict orders not to interfere, so the office was demolished, its renovation another cost for taxpayers to bear.

      With the mayor’s popularity plummeting, in the 1969 election he lost the Republican nomination to a conservative, so he ran on a Liberal/Fusion ticket and won, his support coming from minorities and certain segments of the white middle class.  But the second term was no better than the first, being plagued by growing racial tensions, a rise in crime, revelations of police corruption, soaring labor and welfare costs, and a deteriorating fiscal situation; was Armageddon fast approaching?  When Lindsay, becoming a Democrat, embarked on a quixotic campaign to grab the party’s presidential nomination in 1971, he only made matters worse, since Democrats viewed him as an intruder, and New Yorkers resented this distraction from the problems at home.  When the next mayoral election loomed in 1973, the embattled mayor, abandoned by both Republicans and Democrats, gave up any thought of running as a Liberal and left office in a state of exhaustion.  It is said that he broke down in tears, frustrated because he had not accomplished more as mayor.

     What does an ex-mayor do with the rest of his life?  Unlike the governorship of New York, which has hatched many a presidential candidate and sometimes even a President, the office of New York City mayor is not a springboard to higher office, only a political dead end.  John Lindsay went back to the law and became a radio commentator and journalist.  In 1980 he lost a primary bid to become the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate; tipping the scales against him in the Florida primary was a flood of letters from Jewish citizens in New York to their Florida relatives and friends, inveighing against the former mayor.  Becoming chairman of the Lincoln Center Theater, he helped in its rejuvenation, but with failing health gradually faded from the scene.  Because he had no health insurance, medical expenses depleted his savings.  Learning of this, his friend Mayor Giuliani obtained a city position for him that included health insurance.  In 2000, at age 79, John Lindsay succumbed to pneumonia and Parkinson’s.

     Subsequent mayors would blame Lindsay for the city’s ongoing woes, which assumed gigantic proportions while he was in office.  He made grievous mistakes, especially in resorting to fiscal legerdemain, but those woes had been long in coming.  Yet if ever there was a failed mayoralty – indeed a tragic one – it was that of John Lindsay.  Just recounting it briefly depresses me.

Abraham Beame

File:Abraham D. Beame.jpg
Dullsville incarnate, but sometimes that's just
what's needed.
      Abe Beame, a clubhouse Democrat who succeeded John Lindsay as our 104th mayor (1974-77), may well have been the blandest, dullest, most self-effacing mayor of New York, lacking La Guardia’s fire, Lindsay’s initial glamor, and the showmanship of Ed Koch.  I confess that I recall absolutely nothing about him personally, only the events of his time.  In TV debates he faded almost to the point of vanishing.  His jokes were lame, and his speeches so dull that those unlucky enough to hear them could hardly recall a word minutes later.  Nor did it help that he was short in stature (only 5 feet 2), not one to dominate a gathering.  Because of his passion for detail, some thought of him as a glorified bookkeeper, which, along with his dullness, actually appealed to many voters eager for a change.  He was quietly energetic, patient, dignified, and self-confident: qualities he would have vast and desperate need of during his one tumultuous term in office.                                                                          
     Why anyone would have wanted to be mayor  of New York in the 1970s, inheriting all the woes that had so bedeviled John Lindsay, is a mystery that only ambitious politicians can explain.  But mayor he was, and saddled at once with the worst fiscal crisis in the city’s history as banks denied credit and – to the astonishment and bafflement of most citizens – bankruptcy loomed.  It seemed impossible, inconceivable, but there it was: bankruptcy!  Schools were half-built, public works spending was halted, streets were dangerous and dirty, libraries had shorter hours, firehouses and police stations had to be closed; the city, in short, was in a state of collapse.  Desperate, Mayor Beame coped as best he could, cutting the city work force drastically, freezing wages, limiting services, and raising taxes – hardly a formula to endear him to a mystified public not used to such painful retrenchment.  With the city still short of funds, Beame begged state and federal officials for help.  President Gerald Ford was at first indifferent, provoking the Daily News’s memorable headline: FORD  TO  CITY:  DROP  DEAD.  In time both Washington and Albany came through, while taking great chunks out of the mayor’s autonomy.

     I remember those dark days, when the specter of bankruptcy loomed large.  Some said that bankruptcy would be fatal to the city and the nation; others scoffed, insisting that this was New York City’s problem only, and to think otherwise was another example of the city’s megalomania.  My own ill-informed reaction was: let’s let it happen, and see.  But wiser noodles prevailed.  An employee at my bank who oozed financial acumen later told me how he had urged his clients to buy city bonds, which were so reduced in price that they paid a fantastic rate of interest.  “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he insisted.  “There is no way that New York will be allowed to fall into bankruptcy.  No way, I tell you, no way!”  Those who took his advice fared well.  I was not among them, having no funds available to invest.  And when I went on a visit to Washington, an acquaintance there harangued me gently, beginning, “You New Yorkers …!”  This I quietly resented, recalling how the Brits so often initiate their assaults on us with “You Americans …!” – a formula I have vowed at all costs to eschew.  (That word again, like a sneeze; I love it.)

      In the 1977 Democratic primary Abe Beame, accused of misleading investors by at first concealing the city’s perilous fiscal condition, lost to an ebullient rival named Ed Koch, as colorful and assertive a character as Beame was bland and self-effacing, and who went on to become the next mayor.  Beame then retired from politics but continued to insist that he had saved the city, while the governor, the city’s labor leaders, and Washington all generously claimed that glory for themselves.  The fact remains that Abe Beame, having inherited a $1.5 billion deficit, left office with a $200 million surplus.

Edward Koch

     Recently I asked two friends if they had a favorite mayor.  Without hesitation they both said, “Koch!”  Asked why, they said, “He was outspoken, he told it like it was.”  I had heard him once, as a councilman, talking to people on the street, but until he succeeded Beame in 1978 as our 105th mayor (1978-89), I didn’t get the full blast of his personality.

File:Ed Koch 1978.jpg     And what a blast it was!  Loud, feisty, combative, this Bronx-born son of Jewish immigrants from Poland was the quintessential New Yorker.  He could rub you the right way or the wrong, depending on his mood and your own, but you would not easily forget him, nor did he want you to.  Balding with a broad, hearty grin that was often described as devilish, he was more rumpled than dapper and stood in vivid contrast to his immediate predecessors, the elegant Ivy Leaguer John Lindsay, and the self-effacing statistician Abe Beame.  “I’m the sort of person who will never get ulcers,” he told reporters on Inauguration Day.  “Why?  Because I say exactly what I think.  I’m the sort of person who might give other people ulcers.”  And he probably did.

     A city councilman, and then a congressman representing the 17th Congressional District (the Silk Stocking District, the very one that Lindsay had represented), he had opposed the Vietnam War and supported civil rights in the South, before shifting to the right and proclaiming himself a “liberal with sanity,” though some might have preferred “pragmatic conservative.”  In politics, timing is all; he had the good fortune – or the shrewdness – to become mayor when the worst about the city was known, and policies were in place to lead it out of the fiscal wilderness into the promised land of solvency and prosperity, for which he could of course take credit.  Ed Koch was never shy about taking credit, when credit – the good kind -- was to be had.

     In his first term he held down spending, kept the municipal unions in check, restored the city’s credit, and began the long-delayed work on bridges and streets.  During a 1980 subway strike he stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and encouraged commuters hoofing it to work.  “We’re not going to let these bastards bring us to our knees!” he shouted, and was applauded.  Re-elected in 1981 on both the Democratic and Republican tickets, he oversaw further improvement in the city’s finances, rehired workers, restored services, and planned major housing programs.  For a city long beleaguered by debt and mocked and censured by its critics, things were decidedly looking up.  Thanks to these improvements and a resurging local economy, New Yorkers could at last take pride again in their city.  And presiding over the recovery was a mayor who rode the subways like everyone else and stood on street corners asking passersby, “How’m I doin’?”

     In New York City politics, third terms for a mayor – very rare – have proved to be a wasteland and a mire, and so it was for Ed Koch.  Corruption in several city agencies was exposed, landing various high-placed Koch supporters in prison; while the mayor himself was not involved, he was accused of complacency and cronyism.  He was also assailed for an inadequate response to the AIDS epidemic that was ravaging the gay community, many of whom alleged that the mayor, a perennial bachelor who seemed to have no private life, was secretly gay and reluctant to deal with the crisis for fear of being exposed – an allegation that he ignored and later stoutly denied.  At the same time, various remarks of his helped further estrange him from a black community beset with homelessness and crack cocaine, just as racial tensions rose.  In the 1989 Democratic primary the mayor, hoping for an unprecedented fourth term, lost to David Dinkins, the only black candidate, who then won the general election.  As Koch himself came to realize, New Yorkers were tired of their bigger-then-life mayor and his in-your-face chutzpah; the mild-mannered Dinkins looked good to them.  The retiring mayor, too, was tired and even – was it conceivable? – less self-confident, less sure that Ed Koch had all the answers. 

     Not one to fade into the shadows, in his post-mayoral years he resumed his law practice; made appearances on TV and radio, sometimes playing himself; wrote columns for newspapers; endorsed commercial products; gave lectures throughout the country for hefty fees (“Koch on the City,” “Koch and the State,” “Koch on Everything”); issued political statements and endorsements that were often controversial; and wrote numerous books and taught.  As late as 2010, at 86, he campaigned against a dysfunctional legislature in Albany, shouting, “Throw the bums out!”  His first memoir, Mayor (1984), became a best-seller and inspired an Off Broadway musical by the same name.  Entering a hospital shortly before his death, he told a reporter one of the things he was most proud of: “I gave a spirit back to New York.”  In 2013 he died of heart failure at age 88.

     He was famous for his quips, calling his Tammany enemies “moral lepers,” black and Hispanic leaders “poverty pimps,” neighborhood protesters “crazies,” Donald Trump “piggy,” and the outspoken Bella Abzug “wacko.”  (For more on Bella, see post #81.)  Just as famous were his one-liners: “If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me; if you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.” 

     If Ed Koch lacked vision and intellect, he achieved the near impossible by remaining popular through his first two terms while reducing city services and alienating certain groups.  He did it thanks to shrewd political instincts, blatant showmanship, and the ability to say bluntly what many citizens secretly thought.  Brains and vision are fine, but in politics it’s instinct that counts. 


     What can one conclude from glancing at these six mayors?  Several things, I think:
  1. If you've enjoyed two successful terms as mayor, don't run again; quit while you're ahead.  People will get tired of you.
  2. Watch out for the slim, elegant ones, especially if they smile (Fernando Wood, Jimmy Walker); they aren't to be trusted.
  3. There's a law of opposites.  Tired of the incumbent, voters go for his polar opposite.  Dinkins was the opposite of Koch, who was the opposite of Beame, who was the opposite of Lindsay.

     Toronto’s mayor:  I thought New York’s galaxy of mayors couldn’t be outshone, but for sheer lurid glitter it’s hard to match Toronto’s current mayor, who has confessed to the use of crack cocaine and drunkenness, and is furthermore accused of making sexual advances to women.  Citizens are clamoring for his resignation, but the mayor, after mouthing a few apologies, absolutely refuses to comply.  And this in our tranquil neighbor to the north, whom I have always thought of as sober and sane.

     Bank note:  Followers of this blog know the love I bear my bank, J.P. Morgan Chase.  It is now reported that this noble institution, out of the goodness of its heart, is settling civil claims with the Justice Department about the sale of mortgages to the tune of thirteen billion (yes, billion, not million) smackeroonies – an unprecedented sum.  Hopefully the government will now leave that noble institution alone.  To be sure, critics note that some seven billion of the settlement may qualify as a tax deduction, but let’s not quibble.  They also complain that no one is going to jail, but such sadistic insistence is unwarranted.  Go in peace, J.P. Morgan Chase.  Let no one who has ever sinned cast the first stone.

     Coming soon:  The greatest mayor of them all, Fiorello.  Other prospects include Andy Warhol (a friend of ours knew him), transportation in the city, lighting in the city, and the ladder of thieves ca. 1870 (from hog thieves and coat snatchers up to safe blowers).

     ©  2013  Clifford Browder


Sunday, November 17, 2013

100. New Yorkers and Booze, and Why Prohibition Won't Work

     New Yorkers have always had a love affair with liquor.  Not that this makes them any different from the rest of the nation.  Consider, for instance, all the names Americans have given to the stuff: booze, the ardent, the stimulating, juice, giggle juice, tangle-legs, fire water, hooch, diddle, tiger’s  milk, rotgut, coffin varnish, crazy water, and the oil of joy.  And there are plenty more.

File:Drunk Texan guy.jpg
Steven Alexander
     And the terms we have used for “drunk”:  drenched, pickled, plastered, soused, snookered, crocked, squiffy, oiled, lubricated, loaded, primed, sloshed, stinko, blotto, flushed, cockeyed, and (a good nautical phrase) three sheets in the wind.  And that’s just a beginning.  To which I’ll add my late friend Vernon’s charming way of indicating a lush: “a bit too fond of the grape.”  

     All of which suggests a widespread social phenomenon, with attendant joys and woes.  Earlier texts have already touched on the matter: Alcoholics I have known (vignette #12); Texas Guinan and her speakeasies (post #83); and Mayor Fernando Wood (“Fernandy”) and an earlier attempt at Prohibition (post #85).  So now we’ll take the bull by the horns, or maybe the mug by the handle.

     There were always saloons in the city, but they weren’t called that at first.  A “saloon”  in the mid-nineteenth century was a large public room or hall.  Thus the ladies’ saloon on a steamboat was for respectable ladies and their male escorts; it was a refuge from noise and intemperance, and very, very dry.  So what were the terms for what we today call a saloon?  Grog shop, groggery, pothouse, gin mill, gin shop, dram shop, rum shop.  But whatever it was called, it did a good business.

     On every corner in the slums was a liquor grocery.  Inside a typical one you could find piles of cabbage, potatoes, squash, eggplant, turnips, beans, and chestnuts; boxes containing anthracite, charcoal, nails, and plug tobacco, to be sold in any quantity from a penny’s worth to a dollar; upright casks of lamp oil, molasses, rum, whisky, brandy, as well as various cordials manufactured in the back room; hanging from the crossbeams overhead, hams, tongues, sausages, and strings of onions; and here and there on the floor, a butter cask or a meal bin.  At one end of the room there was usually a plank stretched across some barrels, and on it some species of grog doled out at three cents a glass, and behind it on the wall, shelves with a jumble of candles, crackers, sugar, tea, pickles, mustard, and ginger.  Finally, in one corner there might be another short counter with three-cent pies kept smoking hot, where patrons could get coffee also at three cents a cup and, for a penny, a hatful of cigars.  Offering all that a tenement household might need, these places were well patronized by the locals, both men and women, and their mix of products show how drinking and grocery shopping and socializing were all jumbled together in a rich and complex tangle.  Not fertile grounds for prohibitionists, one might think.

     But prohibitionists there were, if not in Babylon on the Hudson, as some ministers were wont to call the Empire City, but in upstate rural counties and elsewhere, as for instance Maine, where the legislature in 1851 passed what would become known as the Maine Law, prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages except for medicinal and industrial purposes.  Many states followed suit, and seemingly for good reason, since alcoholism was rampant.  When two American males met, their greetings were often followed by, “Let’s liquor.”  Mindful of this, many a patriarch enjoined his son departing for college, “Beware the flowing bowl!”  Which was about as effective, I suspect, as similar admonishments today. 

     Regarding youthful follies of the time, I can only cite the charming memoir of the cartman I.S. Lyon, who tells of being hired to take two medical students and their baggage to a Philadelphia-bound boat.  Entering their attic room in a four-story boarding house on Broadway, he found some twenty medical students gathered for a parting “blow-out.”  The air was cloudy with tobacco smoke, and on a red-hot stove was a huge tin pot of badly concocted whiskey punch whose escaping vapors filled the room with noxious odors.  The furniture was begrimed, the ragged carpet soiled with spilled liquor and tobacco juice, and the whole place littered with empty whiskey bottles, greasy French novels, defaced song books, and torn and detached sheets of music.  Also strewn about were revolvers, daggers, sword canes, broken umbrellas, and pipes both long and short.  As the two departing students prepared to leave, the whole group rose, glass in hand, and sang “We won’t go home until morning” as if the day of doom had arrived.

     So would prohibition come to that den of inebriation, New York?  Yes indeed, or so it seemed, for if the city was notoriously “wet,” the upstate rural counties were adamantly “dry.”  (For the perennial conflict between upstate and downstate New York, see post #18.)  In 1854 the legislature passed an Act for the Prevention of Pauperism, Crime, and Intemperance whereby, as of July Fourth next (a date the city hailed with whiskey- and rum-soaked revels), liquor would be banned throughout the state and public drunkenness forbidden.  The law was vetoed by the governor, but his successor was a “dry,” and in 1855 the law was passed again by the legislature.

A New York beer garden on Sunday evening.
     Prohibition in booze-ridden Gotham?  Was it even conceivable?  The city was now full of newly arrived immigrants who were just as opposed to the law as many citizens.  At the thought of prohibition the Irish in their grog shops, downing tumblers of cheap whiskey, muttered dark oaths.  At the mere hint of it the Germans in their beer gardens, clinking steins, scowled under frothy noses, while behind the elegant façades of brownstones (certain brownstones) genteel profanity glanced off the rims of stemware over delicate wines.  All eyes turned to the city’s newly elected mayor, Fernando Wood, himself once the proprietor of a groggery, and a known “wet” who over the years had frequented the city’s finest barrooms, his elegant form reflected in the huge gilt mirrors backing bars adorned with nippled Venuses and cupid-crowned clocks.  So what was he to do?

Fernando Wood    Tall and dapper, “Fernandy” (as he was known to cronies) was as slick a character as had ever ruled the city (if anyone could rule it).  Having consulted legal experts, he announced that he would of course enforce the law, however needless and impolitic, while giving full attention to exceptions, technicalities, and the rights of citizens, violating which, officers would be held to strict account.  The law, in fact, had many flaws, and he had every intention of exploiting them to the full.

     Needless to say, the city understood the mayor only too well, and its tippling did not notably decrease.  Mercifully, within a year the law was voided in the courts, and the Sabbath quiet continued to be tainted by the din of unlicensed grog shops spilling out reeling drunks on the street.

Carrie Nations Takes on The World!
Scripture in one hand, a hatchet in the other.
Many a bar was tomahawked.
     So ended the city’s first brush with legislated temperance.  But the campaign for prohibition had only begun, aided and abetted – indeed, championed and promoted – by a host of female reformers determined to see the matter through.  The movement was sidelined by the Civil War, but afterward it regained strength, especially following the founding of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1873.  Successes followed: in 1881 Kansas became the first state to outlaw alcohol in its constitution, and subsequently Carrie Nation achieved notoriety there for entering saloons to smash liquor bottles by the dozen with a fiercely wielded hatchet.  Described as sporting “the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache,” Carrie was a formidable activist, but hardly typical of the crusading women, who preferred hymns, prayers, and arguments to hatchets.  What explains their dedication?  For most of them,  painful personal experience with a drunkard father, brother, spouse, or son at whose hands they had suffered humiliation and abuse.

     Prominent among the drys were Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, and other Protestant groups, as opposed to Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and German Lutherans.  Not that everyone involved was motivated by lofty ideals: tea merchants and soda manufacturers sided with the drys in hopes of increased sales following a ban on alcoholic drinks.  The conflict between rural upstate citizens and downstate urban residents in New York State was replicated throughout the country, with rural populations viewing the cities as not only rum-soaked but also crime-ridden and corrupt.  And when the WCTU expanded its campaign to include women’s suffrage, the leading group focused solely on Prohibition became the male-dominated Anti-Saloon League, founded in 1893 in Ohio but soon active throughout the nation and especially influential in the South and the rural North.

New York City tavern
An all-male bastion.

     New York City was not without some ardent prohibitionists, but the city generally remained passionately and determinedly wet.  Women reformers were especially resented by working-class males, who saw the reformers’  activities as an assault on a whole way of life centered in what was now called the saloon.  The saloon was their refuge and social center, a place to get free – for a while – of family obligations, a place to down a few with their pals after work, before trudging homeward with diminished funds to face the scolding tongues of their wives.  (“Women,” went a saying, “you can’t live with ’em and you can’t live without ’em.”)  And in Tammany-dominated New York the saloon was also the political base of the proprietor, often an alderman, who dispensed liquor and salty eats freely toward election time and so corralled the necessary votes for his own or his cronies’ reelection.  All this was threatened by these misguided and depraved reformers, these well-scrubbed preachers and goody-goodies, who had no understanding of the city’s raw needs.  To put it bluntly:

meddling females + preachers + hicks = Prohibition


no Prohibition = freedom = sanity = bliss

Singing hymns outside a saloon.

     And there is little doubt that the reformers had their sights on New York City.  Out-of-town ministers had long made a habit of visiting it on a whirlwind tour to see first-hand its sins, so they could go home and inform their congregations about this sink of depravity and cesspool of greed.  It was Babylon on the Hudson, it was Sodom and Gomorrah, it was Satan’s Seat.  So Prohibition was deemed especially appropriate for Gotham, where it was most needed; it would breed virtue and sobriety.

One year later, Prohibition went into effect.

Dumping beer into the New York City sewers.
     By January 1919 enough states had ratified the Eighteenth Amendment to make nationwide prohibition a certainty, and on January 16, 1920 – a day that for New Yorkers would live in infamy -- the ban went into effect.  Police confiscated quantities of barrels containing wine and beer, smashed them, and dumped their contents into gutters or the harbor, while stunned Gothamites watched in shock and horror.  Huge vats of alcohol were discovered in outlying areas, and the Coast Guard began intercepting liquor-laden boats bringing thirsty Americans the hooch they longed for.

     The lower classes were at once deprived, but their betters had already  stockpiled vast quantities of their preferred labels.  Significantly, President Woodrow Wilson had promptly moved his personal supply to his Washington residence when his term of office ended, while immediately after inauguration Warren G. Harding, his successor, moved his own stash into the White House. 

     Such maneuvers were fine for the moneyed elite, but New York City had an answer of its own: the speakeasy, of which within a year or two there were between 20,000 and 100,000  in the city, and all of them thriving, since to tell New Yorkers they can’t do something at once kindles in them a passionate desire to do it.  At first the speakeasies operated clandestinely and required patrons, viewed suspiciously through a peephole, to give a password to enter, but soon enough there was little need for pretense, since the police were amply rewarded for looking the other way.

     The speakeasies ranged from the lowest dives offering cheap rotgut of dubious provenance requiring gastric fortitude, to well-appointed establishments catering to the wealthy and elite.  And if the now-banished saloons had enjoyed a strictly male clientele, these new night spots went defiantly coed.  Patrons included Charleston-dancing flappers and their callow escorts, cavorting businessmen from Cleveland and their intrepid spouses, assorted judges and aldermen, visiting dignitaries, silent film stars, and from 1926 on, His Honor the Mayor. 

     And where did all this liquor come from?  Some was homemade, with all the perils that entailed: foul-tasting brews, explosions, after effects ranging from atrocious hangovers to departures for the beyond.  But much of the booze came from elsewhere.  In a fit of neighborliness the distilleries of Canada labored diligently to supply the needs of a deprived population to the south, across a long and porous border.  And visible off the Rockaways was Rum Row, a fleet of ships at permanent anchor just outside the three-mile limit, where U.S. jurisdiction ended: floating warehouses for smugglers who, dodging the Coast Guard under cover of darkness, brought the precious stuff to land in speedboats.

File:Rumrunner cargo.jpg
A rum runner seized by the Coast Guard, with confiscated liquor stacked on the deck.

     The queen of speakeasies was Texas Guinan, who quipped her way through multiple arrests, always surviving a raid to open another night spot that brought patrons flocking to receive her signature greeting, “Hiya, suckers!”  (For more of Texas, see post #83.)  But if her series of clubs were the most popular, there were plenty of others in all the boroughs.  The most celebrated and frequented were clustered in midtown Manhattan, with 38 on 52nd Street alone.  Prominent among them was the 21 Club, whose final address was 21 West 52nd Street, made famous by its ingenious engineering: in the event of a raid, a system of levers tipped the shelves of the bar, sending liquor bottles through a chute into the city’s sewers.  There was also a secret wine cellar accessed through a hidden door in a brick wall, opening into the basement of the building next door.  In the 1950s workers expanding the 53rd Street branch of the New York Public Library are said to have encountered the soil there still reeking of alcohol.

James Walker NYWTS.jpg
 Jimmy Walker
     Other joints of the day included the Hi Hat, the Kit-Kat, and the Ha-Ha Club.  Noel Coward liked the elegant Marlborough House at 16 East 61st Street, where black-jacketed waiters served partying socialites.  Fred and Adele Astaire danced at the Trocadero at 35 East 53rd Street, while pilots flocked to the Wing Club at 8 West 52nd Street, and artists to the Artists and Writers Club at 213 West 40th Street.  The Central Park Casino, in the Park near the 72nd Street entrance, was the favorite hangout of fun-loving Mayor Jimmy Walker, who spent more time there than at City Hall.

     But New Yorkers had other ways as well of coping with Prohibition.   Nathan Musher’s Menorah Wine Company imported 750,000 gallons of fortified Malaga wine that, certified as kosher, he sold to “rabbis” with sacramental wine permits, some of whom sported such names as Houlihan and Maguire.  In a more sinister mode, Meyer Lansky’s car and truck rental business in a garage underneath the Williamsburg Bridge became a warehouse for stolen goods and rented out vehicles to bootleggers.  Lansky went on to become a major gangland figure, associating with such stellar operators as Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano; as a Jewish gangster, he figures in my eyes as a supreme example of successful assimilation.

     As time passed, enthusiasm for Prohibition waned.  Far from reducing crime, as had been hoped, it promoted it by creating a bootlegging industry dominated by ruthless warring gangs.  Far from eliminating alcoholic consumption, it made it fashionable and prompted the fair sex to join their lusty males in imbibing.  Flouting the law was “in,” it was fun.  Nor was Prohibition an inducement to better health, since drinking bad booze from a bottle with a counterfeit label could on occasion be lethal. 

     The coup de grâce for Prohibition came in October 1930, just two weeks before congressional midterm elections, when the bootlegger George Cassiday contributed five articles to the Washington Post telling how for the last ten years he had supplied booze to the honorable members of Congress, of whom he estimated that 80 percent drank.  As a result, in the following election Congress shifted from a dry Republican majority to a wet Democratic majority eager for the Eighteenth Amendment’s repeal.  To bring that about, states began ratifying the Twenty-first Amendment.  In New York City anticipation mounted, and bystanders were astonished or amused to see phalanxes of sturdy matrons, who incidentally now had the vote, marching together under bold-lettered signs:  WE  WANT BEER!  Yes, the times had changed.  On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified, thus repealing at last the now despised Eighteenth; New Yorkers cheered … and drank.


     There are many morals to this story, chief among them the folly of imposing morality from above by law, when vast numbers of those below have only scorn for the law enacted.  For better and for worse, New Yorkers  have always guzzled, and surely always will.

     And so …   Cheers!    Salute!    Prosit!    A la tienne!     Salud!

File:Brindis en Navidad.jpg

     A note on WBAI:  The listener-supported, commercial-free radio station that I love and hate (see post #16) continues to stagger on, celebrating its successful fund drives while pleading desperately for more contributions.  There is even talk of some kind of leasing arrangement that, to my mind, would change the station completely.  Likewise indicative of its dire straits is the proliferation of imported talent, presumably at little or no cost, replacing familiar programs in hopes of reaching a wider audience.  One such is the Thom Hartmann program, its host an ego-driven, self-promoting talk-show host whose heart, if not his head, is in the right place.  Nothing so grates on me as the periodic announcement in a resonant voice, “This is the Thom Hartmann program!”  And his grandiose statements, always in a worthy cause, that seem just a bit inflated and flimsy. 

     An example of the latter: recently he proclaimed that the 1929 Crash and the Depression that followed “destroyed the middle class.”  Really?  I was there; he wasn’t.  In the 1930s, as a kid growing up in a middle-class suburb of Chicago, I was aware of modest living but no destruction.  My father was a lawyer with a big corporation in Chicago; we watched our pennies but certainly survived the Depression.  Our neighbors on the block included the successful owner of a small company that made paper boxes, a dentist, a night editor with the Chicago Tribune, an insurance man, and other businessmen, all of whom, except the dentist, commuted to jobs in Chicago.  To the south lay the city of Chicago, with its share of Depression misery, and to the north a series of lakefront suburbs with higher incomes and more imposing residences.  In between, we were very middle middle class and by no means ruined. 

     Mr. Hartmann’s dramatic assertion to the contrary is typical of WBAI, where grandiose negative statements and predictions of dire imminent catastrophes abound.  Frequent among the latter: a coming financial collapse far exceeding the recent one, and the dollar’s ceasing to be the dominant world currency.  All of which may be true – I certainly anticipate a serious correction in the market, if not a full-fledged bear market -- but then, there’s the story of the boy who cried “Wolf!”  But my measured skepticism includes no trace of gloating.  The commitment of WBAI’s dwindling staff is remarkable, and the station continues to broadcast many news stories neglected by mainstream media, as for instance poverty in America and the threat of the Transpacific Partnership, now being secretly negotiated, which would seriously undercut our national sovereignty.  I criticize the station, but I need it; it is unique.

     Coming soon (though in no particular oreder):  The mayors of New York (a colorful bunch); Andy Warhol (genius or fraud?); lighting the city (from candles to neon signs); transportation in the city (the kinds of carriages and what they signified, the first gas buggies, the subway); foreign influences on nineteenth-century New York (the mansard roof, hoopskirts, the ascot tie, the derby, lager beer, the polonaise, even a Chinese junk).

     ©  2013  Clifford Browder